Theo Epstein’s wit and candor aren’t winning this series. Joe Maddon’s folksy ways aren’t winning this series. Jake Arrieta, apparently, isn’t winning this series. By himself, anyway. In the span of two frigid nights in Queens, the Chicago Cubs and their cold, thirsty fans found out they just might be the supporting cast in the New York Mets‘ off-Broadway show.
With their tortured, poetic history, the Cubs are always the story when they make it into the cold heart of October. So in situations like this one, where they beat their arch-nemeses in their first two tests of their baseball bildungsroman, you sort of assume it’s finally their time.
But, really, it’s looking like the Mets are the heroes and the Cubs are the foils. We don’t know any of that yet. Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, set for Tuesday at Wrigley Field, will tell us everything we need to know about this series. If the Cubs score first, they will win. That’s my guarantee. If the Mets take an early lead, sell those Game 4 tickets, folks.
Down 2-0 to the Mets, the Cubs don’t have great odds to win this series, but they do have three consecutive games at home, with great-to-decent weather forecast. That should help the team’s young, confident hitters. Sometimes, you can blame/credit the weather.
Speaking of the sky, to some Cubs fans it might feel as if the heavens are falling along with the scalpers’ prices on tickets. Others stay hoping, like the kids who still believe in Santa Claus in elementary school.
On Monday, I texted a handful of Cubs-diehard friends with a simple question, “Optimistic or pessimistic?”
One replied, “Optimistic. They lose tomorrow then pessimistic.”
Another wrote, “Optimistic about not getting swept. Wavering on actually winning the pennant.”
A longtime season-ticket holder wrote, “Not confident.” He then proceeded to write another 100 words about why the Cubs could take the series if they win Tuesday night.
Another fan just asked me about tickets, but he didn’t have to say it. I know he’s a true-blue Cubby optimist. I love those folks. You root for those fans.
Because this season was so unexpectedly delightful, there is a mixed bag of feelings on how to process the Cubs’ current situation. And even though it’s silly to compare this season to those of seven, eight or 12 years ago, it’s not wrong to gauge your feelings now compared to the past.
Any time I watch the Cubs lose a playoff game, particularly when at a bar with other people, I get flashbacks to the highs and lows of 2003, 2007 and 2008. By the end of Sunday’s game, some of the diehards in the bar busied themselves by playing shuffleboard while others reminisced about times they were dreadfully wrong about Cubs prospects.
“I really thought Scott Bullett and Ozzie Timmons would be All-Star outfielders,” my friend Rob said.
Rob’s brother Jake told about how he accidentally voted for Cubs third-base coach Chuck Cottier for team MVP in a phone poll as a kid.
As a Cubs fan, you have to laugh. At yourself. At your team. Mets fans can certainly understand. The past is a fun place to visit if you have that kind of humor, but no one, even those like me, with no skin in the game, wants to see this team live down to its history. The Cubs have been so enjoyable to watch, not make fun of, and were so good when it counted, late in the season, no one with any heart could possibly be happy with a loss in the NLCS. Not with the World Series so close.
The idea that the Cubs were a year early is wishful thinking that the future will follow the present. The organization is certainly set up for an annual run at the postseason, which shortens the odds considerably at actually winning one, but as Maddon likes to preach, you only worry about what’s in front of you. The Cubs got a Cy Young season out of Arrieta and had no starting-pitching injuries. Among the position players, only Jorge Soler missed significant time because of injury.
That’s not to say the Cubs won’t just grow from this playoff experience, good or bad. With so much young talent, it’s surely a benefit to get a playoff taste. Maybe it will prod chairman Tom Ricketts into more spending this offseason to beef up the starting rotation.
But it’s a good thing fans are enjoying this run, however long it lasts. We know they’re not guaranteed.
When I interviewed former WGN program director Dan Fabian this week about the late Steve Goodman, he said he thought this Cubs team was ready for some regular success. When I asked if he thought that way about the 1984 team, he laughed.
“I thought it after the  Bears, too!” he said.
All sports fans, but especially Cubs fans, are dreamers, and the team, not to mention the interdependent Cubs economy, have profited off this personality quirk for decades upon decades. Hope doesn’t float in an Old Style, but it sure sells.
The Cubs’ margin for error is slimmer than relief pitcher Carl Edwards. Perhaps it would be good for the Cubs to be considered an underdog again, a week after their bags were all but packed for a World Series date with either Kansas City or Toronto and longtime listeners, first-time callers were measuring Arrieta’s head for Cooperstown.
Over and over, the Cubs have reminded us they don’t care about the past — who does but sports reporters and crotchety sports fans? — and they’re too young and talented to sweat it.
If the Cubs lose this series, it isn’t about pressure, it’s about matchups and the randomness of clutch hitting in small sample sizes. The Mets have elite, hard-throwing starting pitching at bargain prices, the inverse of the Cubs’ Young Bat philosophy. In this case, pitching over hitting could tilt the series in the Mets’ favor. Next year, maybe not, but all that matters is the next three days at Wrigley Field, the place where dreams and nightmares come to life.